By Jean Roberta
(Note: My apologies for arriving late. I had trouble posting this piece earlier.)
The word “but” seems wildly unpopular these days. According to television counsellor Dr. Phil, whatever follows a “but” negates whatever came before it. In the context of personal relationships, there seems to be some truth in this claim. When a guest on the Dr. Phil show tells a Significant Other: “I’m sorry I cheated on you, but …” the rest of the sentence is always an attempt to justify the behaviour that the speaker supposedly regrets. When the defense lawyer in a sexual assault case says, “I’m not really saying the victim deserved what she got, but. . .” the rest of the sentence usually implies that she, not the perpetrator, was responsible for an unfortunate misunderstanding. When someone in an on-line thread says, “I’m not racist, but. . “ well, you see the pattern.
My spouse, as a professional counsellor, agrees with Dr. Phil. She tells me that when I say, “I like X, but . . .” the sentence contradicts itself in a confusing postmodern style.
Allow me to present the case for “but.”
I was delighted to teach a credit class in creative writing for the first time in Fall 2013, at the university where I have taught first-year literature-and-composition classes for (as of spring 2014) a quarter-century. I had offered informal crits of other people’s writing in the Storytime list here at Erotic Readers and Writers, but I was nervous about doing this in an official capacity. How could I judge other people’s short stories, poems, scripts or opinion pieces and assign grades to them without being unreasonably biased in favour of what I happen to like? On a deep level, this question nagged at me: Why on earth should other writers (even those almost young enough to be my grandchildren) respect my opinions? Am I brilliant or famous?
As it turned out, it seemed surprisingly easy to evaluate student assignments by the same standards I use to evaluate academic essays on literature. This is my general checklist:
- What is the purpose of this piece? (In the case of an essay, I look for a thesis, a controversial statement which will be defended with fairly objective evidence, much like an appeal to the jury by a prosecutor/district attorney or a defense attorney in criminal court. Neither lawyer can be neutral, or defend both sides.)
- How does this piece approach its purpose? If this seems to be a mood piece, does it use descriptive language? Does the writer “show” a situation or “tell” about it? What are the advantages of the strategies used, if any?
- Is this piece written grammatically, in standard English? (In the case of an essay, ungrammatical writing automatically lowers the grade.) If a creative piece is written informally, in slang or dialect, is this an attempt to produce the effect of spoken language? If so, does it work? Is the piece a linguistic experiment? If so, is it understandable?
- Is this piece coherent, or does it switch viewpoints for no apparent reason? Is the pacing uneven? Does something important seem to be left out?
When grading the assignments of eager young writers (of stories, novels-in-progress, structured poems, short plays and essays), I found much to admire, but I always had a “but.” Usually I liked the plot premise, but sometimes I found the characters two-dimensional or the dialogue full of cliches. I was taken aback by the number of apparently unintended grammatical problems in student writing. In the case of structured poems, the technical problems were easy to spot. (This is one reason why I gave the assignment). How many sonnets, I asked aloud rhetorically, have lines that vary from eight syllables to thirteen?
So my evaluations usually started with praise for the general conception of the piece, followed by a “but.” Example: Interesting contemporary drama about a dysfunctional family (and aren’t they all, if you look closely?), but do Canadians in the 21st century say, “Mark my words?” (As far as I know, this phrase might still be a part of local speech in some quaint backwater, but I suspect the student was too influenced by the literature of the past.) Or: Exciting, ambitious fantasy story, but how can an immortal character drop dead of natural causes, and why does the invisibility cloak only work on some occasions?
This brings me to a recent discussion in the Writers list, here at ERWA. Someone said that as writers, we can never know why an editor rejected one of our submissions. This statement seems akin to saying that we can never really, really know what another person means. I can agree with this, but I’m not convinced that editors are especially cagy about expressing their true opinions.
I’ve received numerous rejection letters. Trust me. They no longer sting as much as they used to because I’ve also had approximately 100 stories (mostly erotic) accepted for print anthologies, as well as a novella and three single-author story collections. Some of the editors who reject Story A from me (despite my hope and faith that this particular editor will love this particular story) then accept Story B, which I sent in on a whim, not expecting much. As they say, there is no explaining taste. When an editor tells me “I really like this story, but it’s not what I’m looking for,” I usually have no reason to think this message isn’t sincere. I know that editors could usually say more about their choices than they usually do say (especially in rejection messages), but a brief explanation isn’t necessarily code for: “Your writing sucks, and I never want to see any more of it.”
I value the “but.” It’s a useful and meaningful word. Sometimes when I reread my own writing, I use the “but” on myself. (Still love the idea, but OMG, this passage is unnecessarily long and draggy. Or conversely, no wonder this piece was rejected. It has lots of potential, but it’s a fantasy novel in embryo that I tried to squeeze into just under 5K. In its present form, it probably wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me.)
I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I use “but” (a co-ordinating conjunction that balances two grammatical units of equal weight), I hope the reader will understand that I’m really trying not to be obscure, snarky or completely negative. No one’s art – and no one’s life --could honestly be summed up as all good or all bad.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *